CHILDREN OF THE ARBAT.

In reading my way through Russian history, alternating fiction with nonfiction, I’ve finally gotten around to a fat paperback I’ve had for a couple of decades, Anatoli Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat (Russian text online here). For some reason I hadn’t been very interested in reading it; I knew it had caused a sensation when it came out, but I had the idea that it wasn’t sufficiently “literary” for me. Well, it’s true that Rybakov is no Nabokov, nor does he try to be; his model is War and Peace, and while he’s not Tolstoy either, he’s a great storyteller, and his panorama of Soviet life in 1933-34, ranging from Stalin (who is portrayed as intimately and convincingly as Lenin is in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914) through various levels of functionaries down to “little people” enduring interrogations and exile in Siberia (and their relatives trying to find out where they’ve gone and get letters and parcels to them), is brilliantly done (and presents a loving portrait of the Arbat district of Moscow, where the author himself grew up). By the time I was a few chapters in I was totally gripped; it’s a good thing I had no pressing work, because I would have neglected it, and it’s also a good thing I ordered the second volume of the trilogy and got it in record time, because the first one ends on a cliffhanger. In this post I said “I would tell anyone interested in Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s to read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, the classic factual account, and Serge’s novel [The Case of Comrade Tulayev], which will make you feel what it was like”; I can now add Rybakov to my recommendations. The translation is quite good, with a few inevitable bloopers: on page 31 “I worked in a factory in Frunze [now Bishkek]” should be “I worked in the Frunze Factory [in Moscow, as is made clear a few pages later],” and on page 364 “in the nearby side streets of the Zaryad, by the town houses on Glebov Street” should read “in the nearby side streets of Zaryadye, by the Glebov Townhouse” [the latter being a famous inn, the Glebovskoye Podvorye (Глебовское подворье), the center of Jewish life in downtown Moscow; there was no Glebov Street there]. (On page 391 a brief discussion of Siberian dialect words is omitted, but I can’t really find fault with that.) Here, from pages 440-41, is an example of the kind of eye-opening exposition that makes the novel so valuable:

“…There’s sabotage everywhere, sabotage of tractors, combines, threshing machines, binders — sabotage everywhere. Is it really true? Are they really breaking everything on purpose? Who’s causing the damage? The kolkhozniks? Why should they? It turns out there’s no other answer for it: for hundreds of years our peasants have known only one piece of machinery, and that was the ax. Now we’ve put them to work on tractors and combine harvesters; we’ve given them trucks to drive, and they break them because they don’t understand them, because they are not trained, because they are ignorant in the technological and every other sense. So what can we do? Wait until the countryside becomes technically literate and overcomes its ancient backwardness? Wait until the peasants change the character it has taken them centuries to form? And meanwhile should we let them break the machinery and let them learn on it that way? We cannot condemn our machinery to demolition and destruction; it has cost us too much blood to get it. Nor can we wait — the capitalist countries will strangle us. We’ve only one method, it’s a difficult one, but it’s the only one, and that’s fear. Fear embodied in the single word wrecker. You damaged a tractor, it means you’re a wrecker, you get ten years. For a mowing machine or binder it’s also ten years. So now the peasant begins to think, he scratches his head, he starts to take care of his tractor, he gives a bottle to someone who may know just a fraction about machinery — show me, help me, save me. A few days ago I was strolling along the riverbank and I noticed a kid sitting in his motorboat and he’s crying: ‘I pulled the string, something broke, the motor won’t start, I’ll get five years for it.’ It was a very simple, primitive motor. I opened the lid and saw that a small lever had come loose, so I tightened it up and the motor started. But that boy would have been sentenced for damaging the motor, for sabotaging the plan for fish supply or something like that. That’s how they do things in the courts. And there’s no other way: we’re saving the machinery, saving our industry, saving our country and its future. Why don’t they do this in the West? I’ll tell you why. We manufactured our first tractor in nineteen thirty, but in the West they made their first one in eighteen thirty, a full hundred years before us. They’ve got generations of experience; there the tractor is private property and the owner looks after it. Here, property belongs to the state, so it has to be looked after by state methods.”

One thing I’ve always wondered about is how intelligent people who were part of the system of terror justified it to themselves, and this explanation, put in the mouth of a thoughtful NKVD officer, is very convincing; I’m sure people said more or less exactly that many times.
And now I’m off to read the sequel, Fear!

Comments

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    in the West they made their first one in eighteen thirty, a full hundred years before us. They’ve got generations of experience; there the tractor is private property and the owner looks after it.
    And in the West after 1830, too, there was machine-wrecking, sometimes deliberate, sometimes on account of ignorance and lack of training, and the owner–landlord, capitalist–likewise exacted punishment, though not on the same scale or of the same severity. (E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class is decades old by now but I don’t think subsequent work has completely demolished the basic outlines of how the English peasantry was turned into an industrial proletariat within a couple of generations.) I don’t mean the Soviet authorities had no choice, once they’d opted for rapid “primary accumulation” under threat of attack, but to employ the means they did; of course they had alternatives, some of which might even have accomplished the same project more efficiently as well as less inhumanely. But this quote from Rybakov does, I agree, capture the thought process that must have seemed, to many, like simple and inexorable logic, with terror as its logical outcome.

  2. Very interesting quote. I could honestly see myself being convinced by this argument if I were in the same position even though the outcome is clearly terrible. I’m not very well versed in Soviet history but it seems like these conclusions were reached simply because there was a high level of national pride assumed, as if the country wasn’t successful unless they were beating other countries.
    On a language note, is there some peculiarality about Russian that would cause someone to confuse the name of a townhouse with the name of a street that includes many townhouses?

  3. It must have been difficult to translate подворье because the word is pretty archaic, surviving mostly in the arcane language of the church. I was quite surprised to see it translated as “townhouse” (aka row-house in real estate lexicon?) – does the word “townhouse” also mean “merchant’s compound”? I guess in Hanseatic cities these residential-and-warehouse compounds really were townhouses, with a pulley by the attic to lift bales of goods. But the Russian подворье is derived from the word “courtyard”; it’s also residence and business at the same time, but more commonly a cluster of low-slung buildings than a Western four-level baroque row-house.
    One of Rybakov’s fav topics was a conflict between “good locals” and “evil invaders”, the locals in this case being the children of old traditional neighborhoods of this town of seven hills. Therefore, the archaic place-names fit the subject perfectly. Especially fitting is a reference to Zaryad’ye, a neighborhood which had been completely demolished half a century ago, except for a handful of подворье compounds still left standing in the shadow of a monstrous hotel, where a popular movie theater kept the name “Zaryad’e”. Therefore, every Muscovite of Rybakov’e era readily identified the word Zaryad’ye with the world of old extinguished neighborhoods of traditional Moscow.

  4. this explanation, put in the mouth of a thoughtful NKVD officer, is very convincing;
    I’m sure it was, if you shared the disdain for the peasantry that was (arguably still is) common among urban elites. The “kulaks”, and there were many of them, oddly didn’t go around sabotaging their own personal equipment in the 1920s. And there also wasn’t much “sabotage” prior to 1918, although there was a great deal of machinery coming into Russia in the late 19th century. But that is a great passage – on the one hand it is just horrifically false as a description of what was really happening in the Soviet Union, but probably 100% correct as a reflection of how people actually justified their inhuman actions to themselves.

  5. Interestingly, Rybakov established himself as a children’s adventure writer in 1940s and even got a Stalin’s Prize. His ‘Kortik’ (Dagger) and ‘The Bronze Bird’ about adventures of two boys during and after the Russian Civil War have long been top teenage read in Russia/USSR. I’ve recently re-read them (to retell my children) and admired the solid plot construction.
    I am glad you liked the novel, it is an important work that deserves more recognition. His style is deceptively simple, he doesn’t play with words or the turn of phrase, but the depth of characterisation and its succinctness is absolutely astonishing.

  6. I’m sure it was
    I hope it’s clear that I meant “convincing” in the sense “a convincing rendition of what such people thought.”
    His style is deceptively simple, he doesn’t play with words or the turn of phrase, but the depth of characterisation and its succinctness is absolutely astonishing.
    Exactly, and thanks for the recommendation of ‘Kortik’ and ‘The Bronze Bird’; I’ll have to give them a try.

  7. Trond Engen says:

    MOCKBA: But the Russian подворье is derived from the word “courtyard”; it’s also residence and business at the same time, but more commonly a cluster of low-slung buildings than a Western four-level baroque row-house.
    Scandinavian gård, cognate with Eng yard, is the generic word for “farm”, “backyard”, “apartment building(s sharing a backyard)” and “commercial building”. In Sweden modern police stations are called Polisgården.
    I wonder how common this is cross-linguistically. Is it special for us recently urbanized North-Eastern Barbarians? (But I probably shouldn’t read too much into it — it’s a simple extension of the meaning “yard” … “court” … “Hof”.)

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